When you are young, you get asked a lot of questions by adults. “What are you doing with that paintbrush up your nose?” “Why did you eat your entire birthday cake in one sitting?” “How did you get mud all over your clothes?” (“I ran out of hands to carry it with”; “Because it was MY cake”; “I wanted to roll around in mud”). But there is one question we get asked repeatedly throughout our childhood, year after year. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Because we are young, we always have an answer ready. “Astronaught,” you say with vehemence. Maybe in a year or two, your answer will change to be “zoologist” or “ice-cream taste-tester.” Whatever your answer, it is usually fanciful, and embellished with all the colourful trimmings of a person who has not yet learned the meaning of the word “limitations.”
But the one thing I never wanted to be was a musician. For me, being a musician was not a matter of “want” or “not want”; it was an identity I assumed at birth. Music permeates my memories and seeps through the pores of my earliest consciousness. I remember my first guitar – I was about three. We were living in a small cottage in the country at the time. I remember the flaky white paint of the house, the crunch of the gravel lining the driveway, and the very green grass spreading out towards the hills. There is a photo of me taken around then; I remember the sun shining into my face as I turned towards the camera. My smile is huge, stretching almost to my ears; my hair is a ragged halo around my face. I am holding my guitar. It is a battered little thing, hanging on a piece of yellow string around my neck. I don’t know how to play guitar, but I know without question that from this moment onwards, I will always have a guitar around my neck.
There has never been a time when I have not been surrounded by music; I never questioned my unlimited access to the music shops my father ran, or the songs that filled our house most nights. My father lived and breathed music - lives and breathes it still. My two older siblings were the same.
I wrote my first song when I was six. I had two guitars by then; I knew maybe three chords. My father was playing music with my siblings by this time; I was much too young, but, as in the case of younger siblings, always wanted to be included. “When you’re older,” I was told, “you can play music too.” “When you’re older, you can work in the music shop too.” I was impatient; I wanted to be old too, like my brother and sister. I had the entitled sense of a young prince who knows he will one day be king – who knows that one day, when he is old enough, he will take up his father’s crown.
So, as the years passed, I practised. Alone, usually – my siblings were too busy with their own music to do more than teach me the occasional song, and I didn’t like playing in front of my father. He never praised my playing – only told me what I needed to improve on. The most I ever got was a thoughtful nod, my father’s dark hazel eyes scrutinizing me like a hawk looking down from his perch.
I was never a prodigy on the guitar. I found the strings painful on my fingers; my hands were too clumsy. I often wondered if I would have ever taken it up if it wasn’t so present in my family life. It became somewhat of an obsession. I never received formal training; mostly I taught myself. Occasionally I would convince my siblings to show me some chords, a song. My father had one jazz piece that he played quite often. It was called “Blues Land,” and was something I never tired of hearing. When I was twelve, I made him teach it to me. It was, of course, far beyond my level of skill. For years I practised it religiously; it became the vessel through which I might win my father’s approval. I longed for the day when I would be able to play it with the fluid ease he did. Time and time again I tried to make my fingers dance over the frets like his, memorised it note for note so that my mind could play it back to me, even when my fingers couldn’t.
Twelve years later, and I still haven’t mastered “Blues Land.” I can play it with reasonable skill – enough to earn the occasional smile from my father, or the occasional laughing comment from my brother. “I’m sick of hearing you play that song!” But it has come to symbolise all of my hopes, and the fears I have about them. The hope of achieving the fame and recognition that was beyond even my father’s reach; the fear I never will.
I inherited my father’s grand ambitions, if not his talent. “One day,” I tell myself, “people will pay to hear me play, to hear me sing. One day I will be successful.” But I’m realising now that much of this desire to be a “famous” musician has been motivated by an all-consuming need to feel included; to feel that I belong in my family. I only dreamt of fame and fortune so far as to be the means of winning my father’s approval. But always there is the crushing weight of my fear. “If you become a musician,” it whispers. “If, not when.” Perhaps most fearful of all is the question I can’t bring myself to answer: If I’m nota musician, will my father ever really see me?
It is an exhausting, confusing thing to be constantly asked – by yourself and others- what you are supposed to be, and why. No matter what my background is, I can’t quite believe that everything I love about music is tied intrinsically to a desire to please my father; to belong. I’ve always remembered that first song I wrote, at age six. It was called “How I love my guitar.” And I remember the feeling of holding my first guitar when I was three, and the grin that stretched so wide across my face. And I know that even though a guitar around your neck can be a heavy weight to carry, I couldn’t bear it if it wasn’t there.
Maybe you don’t need anyone’s approval to be successful. Maybe Blues Land is a place that you can get to on your own. And when I get there, I will say with vehement certainty, “I don’t need to grow up. I am already a musician.”